Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore.
This week, this holy week, has brought with it a lot of anticipation, some dread, conflicts with scheduling, a chance to talk with our kids about good and evil and the pressure to “choose sides” in what is an eternal debate. I am talking, of course, about the release of Superman Versus Batman. Being a comic book nerd, this is a great time to be alive…a complete bombardment of superhero movies, some better than others. And this is the first of a couple where we will see the “heroes” fight each other. For the record, I’m team Batman.
Now, I haven’t seen the movie yet, and the reviews are not good. The Tulsa World’s review said that the movie was “doom and gloom”, with no fun. That being said, I cannot imagine that you would read the title or watch the commercial spots and expect a happy-go-lucky time. Every shot is dimly lit and grainy and full of nothing but combat between the two people who are supposed to be the good guys. It does not imply “happy kum-ba-ya.” But this movie is just part of a story, which is why it is subtitled, “Dawn of Justice.” It sets the stage for another part of the story to unfold. It’s like dropping in on holy week right in the middle. If you had come only to the Good Friday service at First Christian on Friday night, amongst giant candles and darkness, the dramatic music and dark liturgy, you’d probably think the same thing…man, this Easter is all doom and gloom, no joy. Of course, the inverse is true if you show up only for Easter…hey, all joy and celebration!!! Hooray!
Easter is the culmination of the story. Holy Week is a remembrance of the last week of Jesus’ life, with his teachings as his awareness of the impending violence becomes clearer, a “last supper” with his friends (eat and drink and remember), a late night in the garden in prayer (can you not stay awake with me one hour?), a betrayal (do what you have come to do), a moment of violent conflict that gets rebuked by Jesus (the one who lives by the sword will die by the sword), a trial before Pilate (I find no reason to accuse this man), the demands of the crowd (crucify him!) and the cross itself (Abba, into your hands I commend my spirit) before he is laid in the tomb.
When you hear only one or two parts of this story, you get a partial tale. And if you don’t connect the final week to the rest of his life, his teachings on love, compassion, justice and hope, then you get only a snippet of a tale, something that can be twisted in all kinds of ways. The parts don’t really make much sense on their own, we need the whole thing. This holy week is, of course, about the death and resurrection part of the story, but without the life we don’t know what they mean.
This is what we really celebrate on Easter…for as much as the resurrection features in our songs and our liturgy and our decorations, it is because of Jesus’ life that the resurrection has meaning. Jesus’ life, the “Jesus Plan”, sets before us ethics on justice and inclusion, wisdom teachings about our interconnectedness and the example of living with passion and hope. It is the Jesus plan that invites us, some 20 centuries later, to imagine a different world than even the one we live in, with not only the assertion that God is love, but the trust that God is love…a trust so profoundly modeled for us by Jesus that he bet his life on it. That is what God resurrects. That is what God raises up on Easter morning…a great “YES” to the Jesus plan.
The whole story of Easter asks us to resist confining Jesus to the role of “personal savior” come only to act as atonement for the anger of a God who Jesus himself never teaches about, and instead to teach us about a salvation that comes by our own transformation, by us becoming like Jesus, by us engaging with the Jesus plan, adopting it…living it. That is a really important part to remember. For we are certainly in a time when claiming the title “Christian” has to mean more than saying a few words and taking a bath. It has to mean learning to do a better job of loving our neighbor as ourselves, for we have many, many examples of people claiming the title of Christian and not living up to the Jesus plan, even working quite intentionally against it. We live in a time of great turmoil, with a lot of stress on every fiber of our society. Our demographics are changing, our economies and choices and ways that we live our lives are changing. Even the very planet on which we live is changing. We must have an accompanying set of values and wisdom to help guide us through the changes, values that cannot be merely status-quo, values that are not forged on rules, but on the ethic that we are all children of God, created in the image of God and loved by God.
This Easter I want to remind us all of the bigger story, the one that imparts such an ethic to us. The story of Jesus, complete with his invocation of the dream of the prophet Isaiah – good news to the poor, release to the captives, comfort for the brokenhearted and freedom for the prisoners – claimed by him at his first talk in synagogue, for Jesus never claimed the title “Christian”, but instead the title, “Jew”. The story that comes with healing the sick and de-stygmatizing those with mental illness…reaching out to those on the margins, eating with the “unclean”, touching the lepers, caring for the outcast, embracing the foreigner and the forbidden. This is not something that Jesus made up, but something that Jesus did by practicing the best parts of the religious tradition he came from, Judaism, and learning from those from other religions, like the Syrophonecian woman at the well. Such efforts are on display today, for I am made better by my encounters with my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as those from other faith traditions and no faith traditions. I am made better by engaging with good people. And how do you know that they are good? Well, Jesus taught us wisdom about that, too…you know them by their fruits. If a person produces kindness and compassion, just and generous behavior, loving and benevolent action, then what name they evoke when they do it is secondary. It cannot be overemphasized that as people of faith and goodwill our “how” is at least as important as our “what.” For the Gospel, the Jesus plan, is not about making bad people moral, it is about making dead people alive.
This ethic, these values, this “Jesus Plan”, is precisely what makes the resurrection so important. I really don’t care whether you think that the resurrection is of the body or not. The Bible is not decided on this, the gospel stories all differ, nor is the Christian tradition. Mark’s version originally ends with no post-resurrection appearances, but that was so unsatisfying that later scribes added on a few paragraphs. Matthew and Luke have Jesus in different places after the tomb, and John has Jesus actually have his disciples touch him and give him food to eat. But in all of the cases, Jesus appears to the disciples, in the middle of locked rooms, and then vanishes just as mysteriously. It is as if the Bible wants to say that Jesus wasn’t in the tomb, but he wasn’t like the rest of us. Something happened, and what exactly it was still gets pondered today, 2000 years later. Body or not, Spirit or not, the glory of Easter is that something happened…when the disciples had abandoned all hope, when the day seemed darkest and the good friday doom and gloom hung in the air, no joy to be had…after Jesus had been mocked and beaten, whipped and crucified, after it was painfully obvious to everyone that Rome had won and that violence will always have the say in who is right and who is wrong, the tomb was empty. God so loved the world that God send Jesus to us to teach us another chapter of this story and when the challenge of “love your neighbor – in fact, love your enemies” became too offensive to our sense of security we killed him out of the same fear and mistrust that feeds our sin today. And God raised him up. With God’s great “Yes” to the Jesus plan, he lives again, mysteriously and wonderfully. Yes, this is how we should live with one another. Yes, this is the way and it cannot be killed.
That came to the disciples in their darkest hour, when I doubt they had any hope left in them. Maybe that’s a familiar feeling to you. It took them many encounters to come to terms with the hope that began to be resurrected among them because they were so beaten down. They called the witness of the women an “idle tale” and settled back into their depression. This must have been for the same reason we do this, too. When we cannot see the path, we don’t think there is one. When we see the actions of violence and coercive power, we have seen it so much that we simply think that it has won again. And soon we think it will always win. But Easter is happening all around us, we just think that when it happens, it’s an idle tale, or we try and look for change in the same old ways we’ve done things, as if we were still looking for the living among the dead. And yet things are changing. Perhaps we live in that time in between Good Friday and Easter, when it is dark, but the dawn is coming. Perhaps while we can see the last vestiges of an old system clinging on, fighting for survival, we also feel the riptide pull of the newness, breaking out into our world.
Death is part of life. This is a simple reality. But it is a part, not the whole. It is not the purpose of life, nor the end. This Easter promises us if we will accept it. Death is not the final answer, love is, and our lives are not competitions, not zero-sum games were some matter more than others. For life will sprout from the darkest of places if we will trust in it…perhaps not in the way that we want it to, certainly not on our timelines, but with the kind of certainty that we see in the rising sun each and every day. This Easter is the dawn of something new…once again…something that is in our midst, that sits beside us, that is present in the arms that reach to heal and hold in Brussels or the Ivory Coast, Charleston or Ankara, in hands that hold the brokenhearted and protect the weak in hospitals and prisons and courtrooms and nurseries, in voices that pray without ceasing and hearts and hands that work and live the same way, choosing to walk the humble, giving, merciful path that the Jesus plan offer us.
It is still here, all around us. Eatser is breaking up through the ground, like a tiny flower, ready to bloom. Holy week brings us a chance to ask ourselves how we will see the world. It’s not an either-or, either Good Friday or Easter, it is both. It is the whole story. Pain and joy, death and life, struggle and celebration all together. The choice comes with who we think is the main character in the story. I think it’s Jesus. I think it’s love.
The dawn is here. The tomb, my friends, is empty. Christ lives. Love wins. Hallelujah!